Inspired by the British novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, The Handmaiden is placed in 1930s colonial Korea and Japan by famed director, Park Chan-wook.
The story follows Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) a young Japanese who lives a lonely life on a secluded estate longing for any sort of companionship. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-ri) is a Korean woman hired to be her new handmaiden, but really involved with a con-artist who seek to steal the woman’s inheritance as the root of all evil is truly the love of money.
Park pays tribute to Waters work by showing appreciation for the Englishwoman’s work by declaring the master of the house, Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) has a great appreciation for British architecture mixed with Japanese design to show the balance between both cultures.
Sook-Hee’s plan unfolds as the con-artist turned suiter, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) falsifies references for her in order to gain Lady Hideko’s trust, which is quite easy as all lonely people care for is companionship.
Lady Hideko tells her new handmaiden that she does not care if she steals from her, but the one requirement is to never be lied to, unfortunately, that is the basis of their entire working relationship.
The film uses white subtitles to for the Korean language and yellow for the Japanese translations, which is helpful for an audience that doesn’t speak either language. Park also shows the distrust between Korean and Japanese cultures that still persists to this day. For those that disagree, pay attention to what North Korea is doing with their missile tests off the coast of Japan.
Sook-hee’s motivation was no more than to escape poverty in Korea, to take her riches and move away to a completely different country and begin a new life. Count Fujiwara on the other hand is the embodiment of greed, jealousy and evil. He follows the notion of why should others have more than him when he clearly hasn’t work for earning any of it.
Con after con, betrayal, intrigue and a mix of business and pleasure are enough to pull anyone into this story where there are no friends, only temporary allies.
Park could have shaved about 20 minutes off the 2 hour and 25 minute run time, but not a single scene is wasted. I never read the original novel so I cannot make any comparisons between the two, but if it is half as good as this movie, then I will have to pick up a copy and soon.
The Handmaiden opens in limited release through Amazon Studios and Magnolia Pictures, Friday, October 21, 2016.
In spite of it’s long run time, The Handmaiden is loaded with intrigue, betrayal and temporary allies that leave you breathless.